September 27 – 30, 2018
Nuits Sonores is an electronic music festival, but there is always room for a musical detour. The original five-dayer has been happening in Lyon, France since 2003, but here in Brussels we’re reveling in the second satellite edition for the Belgian capital. It’s four days rather than five, a collaboration between original Lyon founding organization Arty Farty and BOZAR, one of the main Brussels creative centers. The exuberant stance is to use the entire Palais des Beaux-Arts edifice, with its multiple halls and stages, but also to colonize a multitude of the city’s music venues, in addition presenting peripheral events in unusual locations.
Mainline house and techno are present, but there are adventures into distressed abstraction, ambient decay, hip-hop, and even jazz and African music. A particular strength on the Belgian scene is a DJ orientation towards global-ethnic styles, with the Rebel Up! collective being notably prominent. The opening Thursday night filtered in gently, with an outdoor stage taking advantage of warmer-than-usual September weather in Brussels. OKO DJ, from Paris, and the local Front de Cadeaux duo provided throbbing, funksome sets, with the latter spinners adopting a winningly casual attitude, like they were holding an all-night party outside their auto repair shop, sound system spilling out onto the avenue.
When the party moved indoors, to Bidules, the chaos began and ended with Apostille, from Glasgow, featuring the manic Michael Kasparis, who runs Night School Records (in the more sensible parts of his day). Kasparis brought a punk extremity to the electronic explosion, assisted by his colleague’s heavily insistent bass lines. More into the crowd than inside the designated stage-corner, he had crushed bodies trying to flail to his flabbergasting excess, barking out throaty vocals with full, sweaty abandon.
Nuits Sonores became much heavier for the next two evenings. Friday had The Loop, which involved performances taking place in ten venues, dotted around the city. Your scribe decided to opt for several hours at the new art space, Walter, just outside the center, where three compatible electro-acoustically distressed acts could be found without leaving the building. Walter is the brainchild of drummer Teun Verbruggen, who plays in a host of adventurous combos, not least the Flat Earth Society. The joint lies up an outside metal staircase, and has an entry room where specially brewed Walter hazy beer is served. Further inside, there’s a long performance room, with tiered step-seating at one end, and a huge bric-a-brac collage mural creation right along its right-hand wall.
Hans Beckers might have grown out of being a guitarist, as that’s the only conventional instrument briefly used during his improvised set of intimate amplifications of tiny activities. Beckers zoomed in on small sounds of wire manipulation, pressed toothbrush, electric device proximity pops and fizzes, micro scrunches, rubbing and crinkling, set amidst a silent canvas, each small gesture becoming vast via pick-up sensitivity.
Benoît Delbecq and Jozef Dumoulin performed as Plug and Pray, the former’s piano having a small electronic keyboard sitting on top, the latter only on battered Fender Rhodes, both of them plugged into a spread of effects units. Initially, output was well defined, but as the tangling progressed it was sometimes a challenge to perceive the left and right side contributions, not that such a task was particularly desired.
Verbruggen’s own Chaos of the Haunted Spire played in almost total darkness, but with flickering Jaak De Digitale visuals projected onto bodies and instruments, intermittently illuminated as they improvised with electronic clutter, drums hyperactively scuttling and stuttering, with finely detailed gushes-of-tattoo—reminiscent of accelerated Sun Ra melodies, acidly distilled through an Autechre indigestion funnel.
On the Saturday, six BOZAR stages ran simultaneously, with twenty-one acts playing between seven pm and four am. There was a thick wedge of African and Latin content, with Les Amazones d’Afrique (shorn of their full starry vocal line-up), DJs Kampire and Batida (from Uganda and Portugal), plus BRZZVLL, a Belgian outfit who combine funk, jazz, hip-hop and, yes, Brazilian sounds. Despite your scribe having another schedule in mind, an unplanned fixation on the Lil Louis set took over, as this Chicago house legend “soiled” the Henry Le Boeuf Hall, BOZAR’s acoustically wonderful old classical music haunt. Seats were removed, and a tarpaulin-type floor cover laid down, light show flashing and beaming epilepsy swords across the ceiling, Louis shirtless and hunkered down to propel the beats. Perhaps expecting a more mainstream, lightweight set, we were excited to discover a non-stop barrage of harsh beats, fried hi-hats, repeated climactic swoops and booming bass bludgeon. “Is it house or techno?” as the Lil one’s own tune doggedly enquired. The setting for this performance was of significant importance, as ramming extremity was housed in an acoustically cosseting environment, perfectly shaped in its assault course.
Come Sunday, the festival settled back into small-scale intimacy, at LaVallée, an art encampment in the Molenbeek area, which was hosting an outdoor afternoon DJ session. Inside, as well as gallery spaces and artist/designer studios, there’s a small bar and stage, where Karpov Not Kasparov and De Wilde Jagd appeared in the early evening, providing some of the best sets of the entire Nuits Sonores.
Appearing on the German label Bureau B, Die Wilde Jagd are a duo from Berlin, teetering on that special point betwixt alternative guitar and jolting electronica. Their repetitions emerge from the prior Krautrock foundation, but with a discrete psychedelia injection. Spacious sounds welcomed electro-pads, mysterious vocals sidled in, small keyboards played as a relief from jangled guitar. As the tunes developed, beats pounded with a bolder attack, building an open-plan scenario for glitch-guitar slashes.
Karpov Not Kasparov are a curious duo from Romania, making retro-electro keys-and-drums dance music, but streaked through with Balkan partying melodies. Any cheese present was burnt into a more lethal melt, and this, subject to subjectivity, was the most danceable set of the entire festival, as KNK rapidly dipped their thick-synth digitals deeply, setting cranial scoops a-bubblin’, limbs jackin’. This was an imaginary 1980s Arabic electro cohabitation, with burble-filtered vocals and clenched hi-hat fizz, light snare-skims and deftly triggered key-spurts. Ghostly organoid spinning-sprite solos were frequently evacuated. Equivalents could be Omar Souleyman or Islam Chipsy, in the way that they loot local folklore to shape particular beat-forms that are known to jerk the chains of “western” dancers into high energized mode.
Nuits Sonores took risks in dividing up locations, inhabiting cross-city joints, populating the mainline dance genres with partially outsider intruders, inviting electronic improvisation, free jazz, avant rock, and Afro-Latin-gypsy blends. It illustrated the ongoing characteristics of the Belgian scene, whose dance music has always celebrated strange flirtations, always ethnically aware, reaching from Chicago to Mali, stretching from Detroit to Bucharest.
Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for The Guardian, Jazzwise and Songlines.